Just as western countries such as Canada begin cracking down on child-sex tourism, a new phenomenon is rearing it's disgusting little head – webcam child-sexual exploitation.
No longer do pedophiles from Europe and North America have to go overseas to hot spots like Thailand and the Philippines to indulge themselves. Watching a child being sexually abused on the Internet is the next best thing.
But a Netherlands group has exposed, as it were, about a thousand virtual pedophiles – including 54 Canadians – in an elaborate sting, luring them to reveal themselves with a computer-generated girl.
Terre des Hommes, based in The Hague, explained Monday how it created "Sweetie," a 10-year-old Filipino girl who enticed adults in more than 65 countries willing to pay to watch her perform sexual acts.
"From a remote building in Amsterdam the researchers operated in public chat rooms," the group said in a release on its web site.
"In a very short period, over 20,000 predators from around the world approached the virtual 10- year-old, asking for webcam sex performances.
"While the adults interacted with the virtual girl, the researchers gathered information about them through social media to uncover their identities."
The material, which the group says was gleaned from the users voluntarily without hacking their computers, was passed on to Interpol.
"With this evidence Terre des Hommes Netherlands is pushing all governments to adopt proactive investigation policies, with a world wide petition, starting today," the group said.
Terres des Hommes made efforts to ensure no appearance of entrapment by spelling out that "Sweetie" was 10 years old, and by not making the first move sexually.
“Webcam child-sex tourism is spreading like an epidemic,” Albert Jaap van Santbrink, the group's director, said during a news conference Monday, according to the Globe and Mail.
The project is chronicled on a video posted Monday on YouTube.
"These people think they are invisible," Hans Guyt, the group's special projects director, told the news conference. "These people think they are untouchable."
Guyt told The Associated Press that webcam sex tourism is still a cottage industry but needs to be stamped out now.
"If we don't intervene soon, this sinister phenomenon will totally run out of control," he said. "We do not need more laws ... present legislation is suitable and more than enough to cover these acts.'
Online child porn is nothing new, AP noted. A United Nations investigator reported in 2009 that 750,000 people were using child-porn sites at any given moment. But in the past, much of the criminal activity has involved viewing videos or photographs. The proliferation of Skype and other live connections is changing things.
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The Ontario Provincial Police's Child Sexual Exploitation Investigations Unit has been very effective in hunting down online pedophiles resulting in busts across Canada.
The federal government has also promised to clamp down on would-be sex tourists' travel plans. Under a 1997 law, Canadians who go abroad to have sex with children are already subject to prosecution at home if they're not prosecuted in the countries where the abuse takes place.
It remains to be seen what will happen with those who's names Terre des Hommes turned over to Interpol, who, besides the four dozen or so Canadians, includes more than 250 Americans, 110 Britons and 103 from India.
The Globe reported the group said it found news reports for only six convictions involving webcam child-sex tourism in Canada, the U.S., Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and Sweden.
The only Canadian case involved B.C. resident Jean-Pierre François Lévesque, who was sentenced to five years on child-porn charges and counselling to commit a sexual assault on a person under the age of 16.
According to the Victoria Times Colonist, Lévesque directed an acquaintance in China to perform sex acts on his young son while Lévesque watched in 2010. He was eventually snared in a sting run by the Canadian Police Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.
The material amassed by Terre des Hommes might by itself not be enough to trigger a prosecution but could presumably form the basis to launch an investigation by police agencies in the pedophiles' home countries.
The Globe said the material normally would go to the National Child Exploitation Co-ordination Centre, run by the RCMP in Ottawa, which would look at it and pass it on to local police forces.